Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Worst General in the World

Its not at all difficult to find. I found it yesterday so much that I'm sitting here now typing out this blog. That's how much it has animated me. I can immediately think of at least 4 or 5 examples just from conversations I happened to stray across or take part in yesterday just watching my Twitter timeline scroll by. The subjects weren't necessarily remotely related and yet they were by having a common bond, a poisonous thread, running through them. Its a thread that is insidious and, to my mind, dangerous. Its a way of thinking, a lazy way, a closed-minded way. But what has this to do with generals? A lot when the worst general in the world is generalization.

Think about it and I'm sure you'll very easily be able to come across these generalizations in your own conversations too. Maybe it is someone asserting that ALL the people from this country or that are dangerous. A favourite one right now in my part of the world is Syria. Maybe you take part in gender debates. In that world lots of statements are made, and beliefs held, about men and women. It often seems that activists hold many generalizing statements to be true. They even have hashtags for it #notallmen, #allmen, etc. I find it somewhat enraging. Another area where the generalizations occur is black/white race relations. Here generalizations are held on both sides. To some whites all blacks are crooks, thieves and criminals. To some blacks all whites are racist descendants of slave owners who want to kill them. The point to me is not which side you take but how you think.

So let me be clear. Wherever you come across the generalizations and whatever debate you are watching, reading or taking part in, I'm not here to take sides in any of them. Of course, I will have my opinions just like everyone else. Having opinions is something people do. And people also decide which things in their world they think are important enough to have opinions about. It is true that something some other person thinks is vitally important you may find to be barely important enough to think about. That's allowed. Each person has their own set of attitudes and beliefs and, as far as I can tell, this is how it should be. Mandating people to believe the things that you happen to believe is called fascism and is generally thought to be a bad thing.

But human beings are also persuasive beings, social beings, communicative beings. And one aspect of belief, and holding beliefs, is that they can (or, should be) able to change. I'm not sure how many people in the real world have views about beliefs and how they work or have mused on patterns of thought. But, as one who is interested in philosophical discussions, I have. In my thinking about that I have come to be persuaded by a pragmatic view of beliefs. This view, briefly, is that human beings cannot help holding beliefs in normal circumstances and that this is just something they do. In order to hold beliefs they would normally be able to give some kind of justification for why they believe something and how it fits into their overall scheme of things. And a current belief, or a new one, must have some way of attaching itself to other things you believe. But it is also the case that over time these beliefs can change. There is a sort of mysterious open-endedness to holding beliefs. They modify over time. Beliefs are things we feel justified in believing and can provide reasons and evidence for. It may not satisfy someone else but it satisfies us in some way that we can explain.

But there is another aspect to beliefs. And this is that they can be questioned. Beliefs are not absolutes. That is why they are called beliefs. But the problem with many of these generalizations I see every day, generalizations that make a lie of the world and demonize people by treating them as a member of some (negative) class rather than as individuals in their own right, is that they are beliefs that are unquestionable. They are shibboleths for their holders. ("Shibboleth" is from a story in the Bible where one side used "shibboleth" as a password because their enemies could not pronounce the word correctly. "Shibboleth" thus served as a way to detect their enemies much as some beliefs do today for various social groupings.) I do not believe that ANY belief should be beyond question. Beliefs are not things that are beyond question. Beliefs, on the contrary, are things which should always be in question, in doubt, up for debate, things to be further refined, things that can change.

This is why closed-minded people really frustrate me so much. It is not that they hold beliefs and find certain things to be true that I don't agree with. I expect that. People's views of the world are molded, at least to some degree, by their own experiences of life. But I'm not sure the generalizers think that. They seem to think that all people should think what they think and that it is some moral failing to think otherwise. But this cannot be true. Its simplistic and, worse, closed-minded to think that way. I really do see it as a new anti-intellectualism at work today in, it must be said, first world societies. In these societies debate is not driven by justifying your beliefs, conversation with those who take a different point of view (which may well influence yours) and the simple act of persuasion by giving good reasons for why you think what you think. Instead, we see ranting and raving, generalizing hashtags and the splitting of societies into a million subcultures, each with their own beliefs, attitudes and shibboleths. Beliefs are much less likely to be open to question, able to last a meaningful debate or withstand good natured questioning if you hold on to them tightly as badges of identity in your cosseted ivory tower. But it seems that that is what some want to do. They are, incidentally, probably not very good beliefs if they can't be questioned either.

So what do I want? I want people to be viewed as individuals and not members of some class be that men, women, black, white, arab, jew, etc, etc, etc. Call me naive if you must but I think we are all people first and foremost. I think our humanity is much more fundamental than any of the differences we can make up, and the generalizations that are made of them. I think that what we share is much greater, and always will be much greater, than what divides us. But I also think that in many first world places today people have become masturbatory and inward-looking. They care more about their own identity, which may be based on a few cherished and unchallengeable beliefs, than the mass of humanity and the good of all. There are Twitter accounts, Tumblrs and Facebook pages dedicated to the stupid, unchallengeable beliefs of others. Feel free to go and read some to educate yourself about the anti-intellectual corners that people will willingly back themselves into.

For myself, I find myself always wanting to challenge those who put their own identity first. Not only does it seem egotistical on their part but it also always seems based on silly generalizations, ones damaging to human polity and social cohesion. I tend to do this generally but if you're reading this already trying to work out which side I take in various debates then you've probably missed the point. The point is that yes we all have views. But they should be open and debatable. There is no place for shibboleths, not when people's lives depend on it. And in many of these debates they ultimately do. When presidential candidates judge people based on their country of origin, when races judge and condemn other races based on skin colour and when one gender categorizes another gender based on lazy sloganizing these are not issues we can just pass over as "the way of the world" or with some such other lazy epithet. How we think matters and we have a duty to ourselves, for the health of our own beliefs, but also to everyone else, as fellow human beings, not merely to believe whatever we want to but to do it in ways that make sense of others too. A private belief is a contradiction in terms and, in my view, a terrible belief. The more light you can shine on it, the better it becomes. 

In closing, I'd like to mention one last conversation I took part in last night. It was with a shepherd on Twitter that I follow who tweets his daily shepherd's life. He put up a picture of his three beautiful sheepdogs. They sleep in pens in his barn and the picture was of the dogs in their pens which looked somewhat like cages or prison bars. This ruffled the feathers of a few of his followers who (I generalized!) seemed like town dwellers not used to the outdoors and country ways. For them, dogs are pets who live in the house. The shepherd seemed a bit exasperated with this response and pointed out, as calmly as he could manage, that these are not pets but working dogs. He explained that two of them don't even like being petted and stroked that much. So they work outdoors all day and then go back to the barn at night. 

What struck me about this little exchange was that, for most people, the limits of their world is the limits of their own experience. And they never look any further than this. This is where the beliefs are fostered - within the safe world of "my experience". My point is that we need to make an effort to understand the experience of others too. We also need to be able to explain ourselves and our beliefs to these people too. This benefits not only us but them as well and, by extension, everyone. I hope you would agree with me that a community that can discuss its beliefs and experiences one with another is much better than one in which everyone believes what they like and keeps it to themselves. The first would seem to me to be a much better, and safer, world to live in. And that's what we want, right? You will never foster peace and harmony based on division and difference. The nasty generalizations I see in discussions online every day are based on the latter and not the former. They are based on keeping to your own version of the world and refusing to interact with others. Identity trumps the multiplicity of reality. 

The best thing I ever did in my life (from an admittedly small selection of things) is live in another country. It opened me up to so many new people, new views and new attitudes. Perhaps that's why I'm writing this now. But the experience has stayed with me. And the conviction that what we see is only skin deep. But we are so much more than what we can see. Let's have a little understanding, the ability to share and the vulnerability of having to accommodate others in our beliefs.

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